Travel & Holidays

Flying solo: my first experience of travelling alone as a disabled passenger

Blogger Tracey Ebbs recently discovered that navigating through an airport with Multiple Sclerosis, on her own, comes with a fair few challenges, especially when things don’t go according to plan…

My name is Tracey Ebbs. I live in rural northern Buckinghamshire and work as a freelance copywriter. I have Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a neurological condition that mainly affects my mobility. I have, what I call, ‘wobbly leg syndrome’. Disabled passenger Tracy EbbsI can walk short distances very slowly with the aid of a stick or rollator (walking frame), but for anything more than a few metres I use a wheelchair or Luigi, my trustworthy mobility scooter.

I blog about disabled access and the challenges that life with MS presents – you can follow me @CatsPyjamasCopy. You might have guessed from the name that I also love cats.

So, when my best buddy Pippa had a catastrophe – her cat needed surgery – and therefore could not travel with me to Essaouira, Morocco as planned, I totally understood. But, I was then faced with a decision – do I cancel or go on my own? I was a seasoned traveller, but I had never travelled alone since having been diagnosed with MS in 2006.

Whenever I fly, with someone or alone, I always take advantage of Disabled Assistance. I have also been lucky enough to get a lot of support from my friends or family travelling with me. I used to say that I could not travel without them. But I didn’t want to lose my money for this trip, so I had to put my big girl pants on and fly solo.

After much discussion and numerous phone calls to the tour operator and airline, Pippa and I came up with a solution. I would go out as originally planned and she would join me a few days later after her cat Millie was on the road to recovery.

Challenges small and great to overcome

The first conundrum was how to get myself and my suitcase from the car park to the airport on my mobility scooter. I just couldn’t see how I was going to make it work without it turning into an episode of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, so Pippa kindly agreed to take my case and meet me at the check in desks.

But first I had to get myself there. At Luton airport’s long term car park you have to call the control room to ensure that the bus stops next to the disabled parking spaces. When the bus pulled up, as planned, the driver was very friendly and the bus was equipped with a ramp, so getting Luigi on and off was straightforward.

The airport, on the other hand, was mayhem. Luton is undergoing a massive refurbishment, so the place was heaving with disgruntled people. I eventually tracked down Pippa in the melee, got my case and myself checked in. I then trundled off to the Disabled Assistance Desk, only to be told they were short staffed.

So I had another choice – I could either wait to be escorted through to Departures with no guarantee of how long it would take, or I could go alone. I had shopping to do (by the time I completed the epic trek I would need a bottle of gin to swig on my balcony), so I decided Luigi and I could do this without accompaniment…

This is where Pippa and I parted ways. With a wave and a promise to join me as soon as Millie would let her she left, and I joined the priority queue to get through Passport Control and security.

Impatient crowds

I was very soon reminded of why I am not a huge fan of airports – the people. Because carrying a bag is awkward I have a backpack, which hooks over the back of Luigi’s seat. This means it took me several minutes to unhook my bag so it could go through the X-ray machine, which elicited a lot of tutting from a couple behind me.

As this was clearly causing them great irritation I ushered them through ahead of me. Thankfully, another gentleman very kindly assisted me and then retrieved all my belongings after I had been through the scanner and been frisked by security.

After bagging the essential bottle of gin in Duty Free, I was gasping for a cup of tea. But the departure lounge was rammed full of people. Every seat was occupied – folks were even sat on the floor. Queues for every restaurant and bar were out of the door, so I decided to forego tea and head straight for the Disabled Passenger Assembly Point. This was also overflowing with very bored looking customers!

I sat there for an hour, not daring to venture out into the chaos again, before being escorted out to the Ambulift van, which transported me to the plane. Using Luigi for this was great as I could drive myself, rather than being pushed in a chair by a stranger. My mobility scooter easily copes with the lifts and ramps.

Was the flight going to be cancelled???

For some inexplicable reason, we sat on the tarmac outside the plane for 45 minutes before the door was opened. It was 6.45am and very cold. My feet had turned a fetching shade of blue and my teeth were chattering when flight personnel finally let me onboard. For some reason, I was the only passenger allowed to do so. The crew were talking in hushed tones and kept glancing in my direction. What was going on?

After another half an hour, with no sign of anyone else boarding, I asked the stewardess if this was to be my own private jet. She told me that they were not boarding anyone else yet as there was a chance that the flight might be cancelled due to French Air Traffic Control strikes. Great! I had been up since 2am, fought my way through that crappy airport on my own and was about to be sent back! How was I going to get my suitcase back to the car?

Just as I had decided I would have to lasso it to my scooter and drag it behind me to the bus stop the pilot appeared from the cockpit and said it was all systems go. Phew! That was a relief.

No Ambulift

After that, it was an uneventful flight, that is, until we landed in Essaouira, where they have no Ambulift at the airport. “That’s fine,” I said, “I can walk down the stairs. But I’m very slow, so just let everyone else disembark and I will go down afterwards.” That was not good enough for the local ground crew though.

Going with the flow…

Despite my protests, all my fellow passengers were directed to the rear stairs whilst I found myself strapped to a transit chair and carried down the front stairs by two burly ground crew. Luigi was waiting patiently for me at the bottom. I felt like the Queen of Sheba!

My personal manservants stayed with me while I drove Luigi across to the tiny airport building. The reason for this became apparent when I arrived at the top of the access ramp to find the disabled entrance door was locked and the key was lost. So, the only thing for it was for them to carry Luigi up the steps to the main door and for one of them to gallantly give me his arm to help me up.

At the top I was introduced to another gentleman who escorted me through immigration, retrieved my luggage from the carousel and found my transfer driver. As I do not speak Arabic and none of them spoke English, this was all conveyed through manic gesticulation, smiling and the nodding of heads. I assumed I was in safe hands and just went with the flow.

In the end all was well

I arrived at my hotel hot, sweaty and a bit overwhelmed. I was glad to sink into a large gin and tonic on my balcony that evening, and even more delighted when Pippa arrived two days later while Millie was left convalescing in the capable hands of her grandmother.

Looking back…

My flight had been an exhausting adventure and something of a rollercoaster. But I had survived it and, in some ways, I felt I had been empowered. I cannot say that I enjoyed the entire experience, I definitely prefer travelling with a buddy as there were moments when I felt vulnerable.  But I had also proved to myself that I could travel by myself if I needed to.

Tracey Ebbs

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  1. I so enjoyed this article. I too have had my trials traveling solo, especially internationally (I live in California). Taiwan and South Korea have been recent destinations, and navigating airports and getting to final destinations are frightening and exhausting. Almost missing a connecting flight in Beijing was scary, I was abandoned by a disability attendant. I finally made it. I also had to negotiate steps up a plane on the tarmac (not fun), and even worse, the bus to take me to the plane on the tarmac. I have inclusion body myositis, so I’m somewhat mobile, but not without difficulty. But I’m not giving up, and do find travel so rewarding–especially the gin and tonic at the end of the day. Next stop, Las Vegas later this year and then Beijing for a longer stay. Keep moving if you can.

    1. I too have sIBM and travel with a walker. Usually this is simple but once in awhile I encounter an aircraft or airport that is difficult to navigate. I always bring a seat cushion as I find it hard to get out of an airplane seat. When visiting older cities, I am not too shy to ask for access to a shop or restaurant via the delivery ramp if the front door is steps above the pavement!

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